Gov. Janet Mills and Rep. Jared Golden Credit: BDN composite

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden are advancing legislation to encourage safer weapon storage, showing low-key alliances with gun rights groups and a middle ground approach after high-profile incidents here involving children and firearms.

The idea would be to provide grants to organizations who would distribute kits with firearm-locking mechanisms and educational material around gun and prescription drug safety. The governor’s office did not answer questions on the issue, but advocates said she would introduce the state-level bill next year. Golden, who represents Maine’s 2nd District, introduced a bipartisan bill on Thursday that would provide $50 million in grants at the national level.

Both Mills and Golden are coordinating their efforts with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the state’s most prominent gun rights group, as they face potentially contentious 2022 elections. They have resisted calls from fellow Democrats to get behind gun-control measures in a rural state that turned back a 2016 referendum to expand background checks to private sales.

“This is something we feel will make a difference by reducing death and injuries,” David Trahan, the executive director of the sportsman’s group, said.

Trahan pointed to four recent events within since the beginning of the year involving children and firearms. The most recent was in Temple, where a child died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound last week. He said his group had been working on the idea of a safe-storage bill since Mills was elected, but that the busy pandemic stalled plans to roll out this year.

Since her 2018 election, Mills has resisted gun control proposals, laying down a marker just after assuming office behind solid Democratic majorities that the “people have spoken” on background checks. She negotiated with lawmakers and gun rights groups to craft a compromise that replaced a proposed “red flag law” in 2019 as well.

Golden, meanwhile, came into Congress with a mixed record on guns that featured prominently in his successful 2018 campaign against Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin. Trahan’s group endorsed Poliquin, but the second-term congressman has been an ally since. Earlier this year, he was one of two House Democrats to vote against an effort to expand background checks, which worked to help keep the gun issue largely off the table in his 2020 reelection race.

A Golden spokesperson said he has been working on his bill since the prior session. Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, who is working on the Maine bill along with Rep. Richard Pickett, R-East Dixfield, said the Maine legislation would be voluntary, geared towards home protection and not touch the subject of restricting firearm ownership.

“It’s more about family safety than public safety,” she said.

The push is unlikely to face much opposition, including from gun control advocates who do not think it goes far enough. Geoff Bickford, the executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said any effort to keep guns out of the hands of children is worthwhile, saying the Maine incidents this year were “so avoidable.”

While the Legislature has largely heeded Mills on gun laws, legislative Democrats have passed a bill from Rep. Victoria Doudera, D-Camden, that would criminalize leaving a loaded firearm accessible to a child under 16 if the child accesses the weapon with permission and discharges it, uses it in a crime or threatens someone with it. Mills has not indicated a position on that. Another bill exempting firearm safety devices from sales taxes is awaiting funding.

All the actions combined could create a deterrent, but not one that stands in for further action, Bickford said.

“The argument we’ve heard that this issue is not a problem in Maine has been really shown to be a lie, especially since the beginning of 2021,” he said.